I’m a boomer, old enough to do have circled around the Gringo Trail before it became a ring of resorts and all-inclusive beach clubs. I’ve slung my hammock under palm thatched palapas on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with no one around to care if I wore clothes or not.
One of these forays to the Caribbean coast, I ended up in Belize. I was looking for my younger sister, who was staying in-country with some friends. All I knew when I left Montreal was that they were living near a place called Central Farm.
When I got to Belize, I found that Central Farm was a settlement in the centre of the country which was just a jumping off point for farms and fincas in the surrounding jungle. A nice lady selling plantains by the roadside told me that she had heard of some Canadians living near the appropriately named village of Ontario (pronounced on-TAHR-ee-o). I sheltered from the rain in a chicken coop that night, and set out along the rutted jungle track to Ontario the next morning
After walking all day and finding nothing in Ontario (one store with a coke machine), as sunset approached, I met a Mennonite on a horse. He was returning to his farm in the jungle from business in Central Farm. He said, yes, there were a few Canadian girls living a couple of miles past his farm on a finca carved out of the jungle. Yes, one of them had long red hair. I could spend the night at the farm with his family and go on in the morning.
As we walked through the gathering darkness, I held the bridle of the horse to guide me, as there was no light, and he alone seemed to know the path. The velvet blackness, the hush of the jungle broken by the hum and rustle of insects, was magical. I’d never felt so immersed in reality as I did then.
Ahead, a glimmer of lamplight through the bush signaled the farm. We arrived to a quiet house, the family all having gone to bed at sundown. The farmer’s wife got up briefly and showed me a bed in a small room off the kitchen and gave me some wonderful nutty homemade bread (I was famished). The sheets were rough, but clean with smell of washing in the stream and drying in the sun.
The next morning, before daylight, about 4:30 AM, the farmer woke me as he and the family were going to the market in Belmopan, an all-day trip. They were all there, three or four boys and one girl, and his wife. They sat around a big table in the kitchen in the pre-dawn darkness as father made breakfast. Homemade bread toasted over the wood stove, fresh laid eggs, pancakes with evaporated milk, pork sausages from the pigs out back, lashings of hot black coffee, even for the kids.
The father prepared breakfast while seated in an old-fashioned banker’s wooden swivel chair, which he used to scoot between stove and table and water pump. It was a marvel of inventiveness and economy. Then, several years later, in Peter Weir’s excellent film Witness, Jan Rubes, as the Amish grandfather, does exactly the same thing, scooting around the kitchen in a swivel chair preparing breakfast. Did Peter Weir visit Belize? Do all Plain Folk cook in swivel chairs? I’d appreciate an answer to this conundrum.
After breakfast, the family packed the cart with produce, hitched the horse and set off for Belmopan. Leaving me in their house. Which had no locks. Plain Folk.
I headed off further into the jungle and arrived at younger sister’s friend’s finca a few hours later. The house was a thatched roof with walls of chicken wire, a mere notion towards keeping the livestock out. Colourful Mayan blankets hung where walls would be to block the wind. The house was set right in the middle of the vegetable garden, the better to keep an eye on it. The owner (homesteader, in those days in Belize) was a vegetarian and wanted to grow all her own food free of pesticides.
Two jungle lifestyles, both equally unadorned and purposeful. I found both of them idyllic (for a while, of course, you’d want your stereo and flush toilet eventually) but I think I prefer the Mennonite farmer’s set-up; he had the hi-tech solution of the swivel chair working for him.
Oh, and younger sister? She had left, moved on to the coast. More on that adventure later.